By Steve Rider
Steve Grimes is a friendly and knowledgeable individual who offered up his time to talk with us at Guitar Connoisseur Magazine. He’s a man who, even as a child, had a curiosity to know how things are made. Over forty plus years, Grimes has gone from taking apart his father’s broken watches to expose their inner workings to his current status as one of the most sought-after custom guitar builders in the world. His story is one of love. Love of craftsmanship. Love of the archtop guitar. Love of a life that allows him to express his curiosity and creativity through hand building musical instruments.
Guitar Connoisseur: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into building instruments professionally?
Steve Grimes: I’ve always been interested in working with my hands. As a kid, I was very curious about taking things apart and reassembling them. I started playing guitar as a teenager and then got into electric guitar when I wanted to start a band. That was around when the Beatles came out. So I started accumulating parts and junker guitars and trying to see if I could fix them, and I had some success. I turned guitars that couldn’t play well into guitars that could, and I started to realize that I was really enjoying that. During that time I was in college studying engineering. I grew up in Baltimore and moved west to check out what the whole hippie scene going on in San Francisco was about. I kind of caught the tail end of it. By that time it was full of burned out druggies and the peace and love had largely moved out. I left and went up to Seattle and lived there till I moved to Maui. I got a job as an engineer at Boeing, and found it was tiring, boring work for me, and found that I had joy in musical type things. I had a mentor who was an authorized Martin repairman. He tutored me a little bit and I just started reading everything I could read, and in 72 I started building mandolins and building instruments, just copying other instruments. Then in 74, I built my first acoustic archtop guitar. I knew I was hook, line, and sinkered into lutherie at that point.
GC: Do you think that training with a violin and mandolin maker gave you a different perspective when you started building your archtop guitars?
SG: I worked with a violin maker, and I was watching, learning how things went together. But I never actually made a violin. That was my beginning, learning with someone who made violins and he also made Balkan instruments. He taught me about graduating tops, carving tops, feathering braces, whiskering finishes rather than sanding them. I think it did influence me. My first few instruments, I copied a Martin flattop mandolin. It wasn’t even a great sounding mandolin. I just figured it was a great model to start with. Then I got into doing a Gibson teardrop A model mandolin. And I just thought, man this is where it’s at, this is what I want to do. So my first forty or fifty instruments were mandolins. I used what I had learned in mandolin making to build an archtop guitar. Oddly enough, I was down in LA visiting some friends and I went to the music store called McCabe’s. And there was this archtop hanging on the wall and it was made by LR Baggs. And I didn’t know him at the time, but it was an oval hole archtop guitar, but he did something different with the arching of the top and it was inspirational to me. I know Lloyd well at this point; I’ve been using his acoustic pickups for thirty or forty years now. He jokes with me that he knows which archtop guitar that was, hanging in McCabe’s. So the first few archtop guitars I made were oval hole guitars.
GC: What were some of the challenges you faced early on?
SG: I think, like everybody, the challenge early on is can you do this long enough and intensely enough to make money to survive? In the early years, I did a lot of instrument repair that was financing and helping my learning process about building instruments.
GC: You designed your first “slack key” guitar as a collaboration with Keola Beamer, a local slack key player. How did this inspire the design of this model and later models?
SG: When I moved to Maui in 92, I met a couple people who really helped launch my career and one of them was Keola Beamer. He had a double hole guitar, which needed repair. He found his way to me and had this guitar, which I just thought was quirky. It had two round sound holes on either side of the fretboard instead of one center hole. I looked inside and realized right away that it wasn’t how I would build it. It seemed to be overbuilt. I asked him if I could build one of these double hole guitars and use my own philosophies about flat top guitars and see if I could build one that he liked. If he didn’t like it he didn’t have to buy it, etc. So I made one for him and he liked it a lot and he bought it. He ordered a couple more and he really kind of launched that part of my career and I still make these double sound hole flat top guitars. They are my biggest selling guitar, more than archtops. My passion I think is still in making archtop guitars and I still make many archtops a year. But I make these flat top guitars that are both cutaway and non-cutaway and they offer a whole different tone approach to guitar top making. It’s a different animal. Keola has publicized these guitars so well that orders started coming in, I couldn’t make enough of them! It’s great for anyone who uses a lower tuning. This double-hole design really lets the bass utilize a larger amount of the soundboard. It’s like using a bigger speaker. It makes the bass have a richer sound. It’s not louder, but it’s a fuller, richer sound to the bass notes. And it’s stronger because the center sound hole is a weak point. So moving the holes to the side, they gain the support of the sides and less bracing is required across the whole of the soundboard. I moved the brace over towards the treble side, balancing out the treble and tone.
GC: Let’s talk about materials? What kinds of wood do you use for your instruments? Do you use woods native to Hawaii?
SG: I use a lot of Koa. There are five different species of Koa. Some people don’t like Koa, but you can get so many different kinds. It depends where the trees are growing, the qualities you get. If you have a tree growing at 7,000 feet, growing small, that is very dense. They tend to be dense like rosewood. And then you have trees growing down at sea level and have more of a density of Honduras mahogany, which is a real warm sound. I don’t use a lot of local woods; really Koa is the only one that I use. For pretty archtops, I’m kind of a traditionalist. I’m one of the only people who use carved Koa for backs, and it’s a wonderful sounding wood and it’s curly.
GC: Does a player’s style affect your choices for tonewood?
SG: Absolutely. Different guitarists play with different styles. If someone comes into my shop and they’re looking for a flat top guitar I’ll find out how they play, with picks, just fingers, do they have a real strong attack? I want to build a guitar that’s going to enhance their playing style. And of course most of the people who come to me, they have a pretty strong opinion about what tone they’re looking for, but I’ll work with that and engage with their ideas and mesh it with my ideas. For instance, Engelmann spruce will give you its best at a lower attack. And certain red spruce or Carpathian spruces are very stiff woods, and I would steer them in that direction. So knowing someone’s particular style is important in what kind of instrument I’m going to design for them.
GC: It seems like everything you do is geared towards bringing out the most tone from the materials. Could you describe your building process?
SG: There’s a lot that goes into it. The characteristics of the wood. The arching of the top. I like to build with a not very high arch. I’m not really looking for big carrying power. Back in the day, it was very important, but now you have pickups and PA systems to carry the sound. A lot of people are just playing for themselves, so you want a good balance between treble and bass, not just a powerful nasal sound, cutting through the air that you can hear from three hundred feet away. For me, warmth and fullness are paramount. More arch on the back and a harder wood on the back gives a greater projection. Harder wood on the top gives a brighter sound, but you also have to balance that with thickness. I like to make what I call a “lower stress archtop guitar” where the arch, neck angle, and bridge are not as high. So the downward pressure on the top of the bridge is not as great. That setup cuts the pressure from 57 to 28 pounds, almost in half. So because of that, you can make the top and the braces thinner as well as the thickness and dimensions of the back. The guitar is quite a bit lighter. It’s very responsive to the touch. It has a wonderful sound at close range and still has that classic archtop tone. It has a much warmer and full and balanced tone.
GC: What is tap tuning and why is it important to you?
SG: There’s just no telling. Sometimes you’ll just pick up a piece of wood and it looks great but just doesn’t have any musicality to it. So by holding a piece of wood in a couple of different locations, and these locations correspond to notes on a string on a guitar, you can hear its musicality. I’m listening for how ready this wood is at vibration. I’ll listen for notes in the wood and how long they last. Then, when you decided it’s a piece you want to use, you remove about 80% of the wood from this block. And when you get close, tap tuning and listening to the woods response to fingers taping is telling you where you need to go to achieve the final tone.
GC: Could you tell us about the “stress-free” soundboard guitars you developed with Ned Steinberger? Is this your standard method now?
SG: Ned is a great designer and a good friend of mine. In a flat top guitar, the strings pull up and forward. In an archtop, they push down on the top and they’re attached to a tailpiece. So he thought about a design where the strings go through a wider saddle, and change the hole of the saddle. The strings go through a hole in the saddle that’s a quarter of an inch wide. And the hole is angled so that the strings react with the saddle and go on to the tailpiece. The strings don’t have a break angle coming off of the bridge. The strings have the exact same angle coming out of the saddle as coming in. So the top is not being stressed by the strings, the tailpiece takes all the tension. The top is then interacting with the strings at the bridge. So it’s kind of like a speaker. A speaker is not under any tension, it’s just waiting for a signal. The top of the guitar is not under tension from the strings, so we were actually able to make a top with no braces at all. It didn’t sound like much because the top needs discipline. So we experimented a lot with bracing on these stress-free tops. Gibson bought the design in 92 and they experimented with it. They raced it against Martin and Gibson models and it actually won in many categories. They printed out this six-page report on it. But I think Ned is actually still experimenting with these types of guitars. It had some overtone issues. It actually sounded like a resonator guitar. If you strum a chord on a dobro and mute the strings, you still have these rampant tones because the resonator is still vibrating.
GC: You offer several guitars in steel or nylon string, are there important differences in design between nylon and steel string guitars?
SG: There are immense differences between nylon and steel. Nylons strings only have about half the tension of steel strings, so the idea is to make a soundboard that’s light enough to work with that tension. I’m influenced a lot by the masters, so I use the basics of the masters and tried to mix that with making a double soundhole guitar. It’s taken years of experimentation, taking guitars apart and learning. People come to me for nylon string double holes. There aren’t that many makers besides me who are doing nylon string double hole. In fact, I can’t think of one! My forte is steel string acoustic archtop guitars and steel string double holes. I’ve made hundreds of them and have refined it down to a sound that most of my customers think is the cat’s meow. I have made about forty nylon string double hole guitars, and people are very happy with them. I’m working with a very good classical guitar maker named Michael Cone. We’re collaborating to design and nylon string, double hole, double top guitar. There’s a thin skin of redwood, Nomex honeycomb, and an inner skin of spruce. The whole guitar top is about 3/16ths of an inch thick. It will have no braces. Even without any braces, it will be stiffer and lighter than a typical soundboard. If we have success I’m very interested in how it will play out with ukuleles. I’m making a lot of ukuleles lately, and with this method, you can get a very good volume.
GC: Let’s talk about your acoustic/electric models. What are you going for with these types of instruments? How do you balance dual function?
SG: I can’t really say that I make an acoustic/electric. I have one model that’s an electric that has the appearance of an acoustic with a sound hole, or F-holes, I make it in both. It’s called the Bird of Paradise, but it’s an electric guitar. Unless you can call the Gibson ES-335 an acoustic guitar, but to me, it’s an electric. Now the ES-175 that’s an acoustic-electric. It’s got quite a bit of an acoustic sound and it also works fine as an electric. But the Bird of Paradise is a 70% solid body, it does have some acoustic tones, but very little. I wouldn’t call it an acoustic/electric. I guess a lot of my guitars are acoustic/electric if you consider an instrument that’s built to be fully acoustic and then you add a pickup to it. Like any of my flat top acoustic guitars that you put an under saddle pickup on it, as an afterthought. These archtops I make are acoustic first and get pickups added to them. I make acoustic sounding archtops with a lot of acoustic sound, and I put a pickup on it.
GC: I see you have a line called Anniversary, what’s the difference between these and your other models?
SG: There’s just more of everything. I try to put the best of everything into these Anniversary models. One thing that all of them get is that I’ll use the best wood that I have. The prettiest piece of wood, but not only pretty but when I tap it, I can tell it’s got a ring to it that’s superior. I mark those pieces of wood as master grade and set them aside. And it’s kind of rare to get that perfection of grain and perfection of tone. I take more time in voicing it to the customer’s specs. And there’s more time because there are features on it that take more time. I’m trying to paint my masterpiece. If or when I retire, I will do nothing but make these guitars that require so much time and detail. I wanted to build an asymmetrical archtop for years. I got a call from a customer that wanted an asymmetrical archtop. He wanted the guitar named after a very special person in his life so I named it the Camille. He just let me do whatever I wanted to do, which is the best commission you can possibly get. He said, here’s the tone I want, just make me your ultimate guitar. And I loved it so much I made it my Fortieth Anniversary model. I think I’ve made three of them.
GC: At this point in your journey, what perspectives have you gathered regarding building and the guitar world?
SG: I will say this: I’m glad guitars can’t be made with 3D printing! YET. Yet. Technology will never catch up with custom work. I will never get outsourced. I’ll never get obsolete. Because there’s always going to be someone who needs a guitar that has this size of a neck but this size of a body, this size of a fingerboard and this size of a fret. So your custom builders are always going to be somebody who can say: I hear you. Write it all down on a piece of paper and make it a reality. Job security comes from the ability to work with a customer and say, I can do this model. You want it with an oval hole, okay I’ll do it with an oval hole. And there are other guitar makers that that would just piss them off. It’s just a personality trait. If you don’t like taking custom requests, then you shouldn’t make custom guitars. I do it. I’m flexible as a guitar maker and get enjoyment out of varying it. A lot of my peers, back in the seventies wanted to get to a point where they were making five guitars a week and have a factory. And they’re making wonderful instruments. These are the Bourgeoisie, and Dan Taylor started in a garage, Bill Collings had a glorified garage in Texas. And Paul Reed Smith, I went to his shop in Maryland. He had already made guitars for people like Santana and Eric Clapton and he was working in a room that amounted to the size of a two-car garage. And they went the direction of production. I have a shop that’s on my property that takes me about thirty seconds to walk to from my house. I have one guy who has worked with me since 2000. He’s my best worker, my only worker! We make about twenty instruments a year between the two of us. Maybe thirty now with ukuleles. But I’m not interested in making 120 guitars a year.
GC: Where are you headed next? Do you have any projects underway or planned for the future?
SG: One thing that has always taken a backseat to guitar making has been songwriting. I’ve been a musician before I was a guitar maker. In the 70s I wrote a few songs. I’m a writer. But then the business got really crazy. I’ve had a lot of success. I’m very lucky in that a lot of the top players in the world have come to me for guitars. But at the same time, I love music and writing. I’ve had to put that on the back burner until more recently. Just in the past eight years, I’ve released three CDs, two are out with original material and there’s another coming out in about January or February. I’ve been a finalist in the Hawaiian Grammys. I’ve won nationwide contests for my songwriting. That’s where I’m headed. If my hands tell me in ten years that it’s time to hand up the chisels and scrapers, then songwriting will always be there.
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